Single-edged blades produced in Japan for centuries, including long swords (tachi, katana), wakizashi, and tantō

The Origins of Japanese Swords
Swords have been crafted since at least the Kofun period (ca. 3rd–ca.7th century), but early weapons were straight swords (chokutō), which came from the Asian mainland and were worn on the left hip with the blade facing down. With the conquests of the northern Ezo region in the Heian period (794–1185), we begin to see a switch from the straight sword to the arced sword (wanto). There were several regime changes with the rise of the two great rival Minamoto and Taira clans in the latter half of the Heian, and this was accompanied by the development of very long arced swords, also called tachi (though written with). Swords from this point on are called Japanese Swords. 
The History of Japanese Swords
Historically, sword production falls into three broad categories:”old swords” (kotō), ”new swords” (shintō) and ”new,new swords” (shinshintō). (There are also additional subcategories that signify various differences within the different time periods.) The Battle of Sekigahara of 1600 is often cited as the borderline between "old" and "new" Japanese swords; in other words, the type of swords made and used in Japan changed dramatically in the years surrounding the Keichō era (1596–1615). The fighting ended with the advent of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which led to significant changes in the demand, supply, and crafting methods for swords. While the very long tachi had been the main type of blade up through the middle of the Muromachi period (1392–1573), it was thereafter replaced with the shorter, lighter uchigatana, or katana. The change in type of of sword also influenced how they were worn. The heavier and longer tachi was worn slung from the waist, with the blade facing down. In contrast, the new katana could be worn inserted into the sash, with the blade facing up. You may notice that in photographs of Japanese swords that some are positioned with the blades facing up and others with the blades facing down. This is because tachi and katana blades are traditionally displayed in the orientation in which they would originally have been worn on the body.
Classification of Japanese Swords
Due to progress in research into Japanese swords since the Meiji period (1868–1912), styles and characteristics have been classified into the following five groups: Yamashiro (Kyoto), Yamato (Nara), Bizen (Okayama), Sōshū (Kanagawa), and Mino (Gifu). These are names of “provinces” which were once administrative districts. The characteristic styles of these five regions were handed down as traditions from pupil to pupil and region to region.  
The Appeal of Japanese Swords
Although Japanese swords originally served as weapons, depending on the periods in which they were made, they were also considered to be objects of worship or symbols of authority. Japanese swords have been carefully handed down over a history of a thousand years and are a symbol of Japanese traditional culture. Many people have therefore been enchanted by the beauty of the grain (hada) of the steel along the surface of a sword and the temper patterns (hamon) along its blade. The beauty of the steel comes from its strength, which results from repeated forging of the metal. 
The Swordsmith Takami Kuniichi  
Sayō in Hyogo Prefecture is located in the Nishi-Harima area, where tatara iron forging flourishing since ancient times. One man born in that region continues this swordsmith tradition to the present day.    Takami Kuniichi was born on April 16, 1973 and is 42 years old. At age 26, as the first pupil of Nara swordsmith Kawachi Kunihira, he took the name Kuniichi and set out on his own by establishing the Takami Kuniichi Sword Workshop in his hometown of Sayo.
The Master Kawachi Kunihira
Takami’s master, Kawachi Kunihira (born 1941), has a sword workshop in Higashiyoshino in Nara. His Sōshū and Bizen blades are highly regarded, and he is working on producing a replica of the seven-branched sword (shichishitō) that has been passed down at the Ishigami Shrine in Tenri, Nara prefecture, Kawachi's versatile personality and style have earned him many fans among sword aficionados and the general public. 
The Sword Workshop
Swords are made through an intense forging process. If you visit Takami’s sword workshop, you feel indescribable tension in the air before the forging begins contrasting with the serene appearance of the swordsmith's tools awaiting their turn, and the Shinto altar in the corner.  
Tamahagane Steel
Tamahagane, which is the raw material for Japanese swords, is a steel made of iron sand with a low level of impurities. The tamahagane used for sword blades is  high-quality material that has been tatara smelted with low temperature reduction (1300˚–1500˚ C) to produce a carbon content of around 0.3 to 1.5%. This is then flattened out to a thickness of about 3 mm. The steel is then stacked up and forge welded by heating to around 1300˚ C. 
Forging
A chisel (tagane) is placed in the middle of the hammered out steel, which is then folded in two and forge welded by heating to around 1300℃. The work of flattening then folding is repeated about fifteen times both horizontally and vertically. This work removes impurities and excess carbon to produce a multi-layered, pure and strong steel.  
Setting Clay and Tempering  
The tip of the sword is cut at an angle and is hammered out using a small mallet. Any surface unevenness is then removed with a file. After that, the fully formed sword is tempered for strength and sharpness. The unique temper pattern of a Japanese sword depends on how clay is applied at this time. Heating the sword with the clay applied and then suddenly cooling it in water is called tempering. The line and positioning of the main part of the sword body are decided by removing deformations from the tempered sword and aligning the shape.  
Inscribing the Signature (Mei)
After the sword has been polished by a specialist and checked thoroughly to ensure there are no flaws, a signature (mei) is inscribed. From the first week of Takami’s training until the end eight years later, he practiced inscribing signatures on a daily basis. Using a dictionary for elementary school students that he purchased, he started from the numbers 1, 2 and 3. Working on one character a day, by the time he finished training he was on his second dictionary. Being able to inscribing one’s name on the Japanese sword one has forged is a crucial final task. 
Connections with Bizen
Among the five main swordmaking regions in Japan, Bizen is known for having produced some of the most expertly crafted and well-known Japanese swords. The town of Sayō, where Takami opened his sword workshop, has from ancient times been a center of the tatara steel making method. These raw materials, likely transported by riverboat to Bizen, contributing to the famous characteristics of grain and blade patterns.  Knowing its connections to Bizen, it was extremely natural for Takami to feel a love for his birthplace, which is blessed with a history of steel, and to be enchanted with and pursue this tradition. It may be the destiny of this sword maker to make a sword from this Harima region that will remain for future generations. 
Future Goals    
Takami's goal is to be able to reproduce the old swords (kotō)  of the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Although the raw material tamahagane and other materials are different, Takami continues to work to recreate these renowned weapons which are part of history.
Takami Kuniichi Workshop
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Credits: Story

Information provided by Takami Kuniichi, Takami Kuniichi Workshop

Photos by Miyata Masahiko

Text written by Ueno Masato

Exhibition created by Yamamoto Masako (Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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